Seamus Heaney, “A Tale of Two Islands: Reflections on The Irish Literary Revival ”, in P. J. Drudy, ed., Irish Studies, I (Cambridge UP 1980), pp.1-20

Patrick Kavanagh was born in Inniskeen in County Monaghan in 1905, the son of a cobbler, and he lived the life of a small farmer in his own territory until he was in his early thirties when, like Carleton a century before, his literary [14] talent brought him to Dublin. "My childhood", he declared, "was the normal barbaric life of the Irish country poor" (Collected Pruse, p.14) and his longest and strongest poem is an anatomy of that life. "The Great Hunger", published in 1942, is a presentation of rural life denuded of all beautiful folk elements. Among other things, it is a powerful rebuke to the Ascendancy myth of the peasantry, full of love for the hard actualities of small farm life in south-west Ulster but also full of anger against its deprivations, sexual, cultural and spiritual.
  Instead of mythologizing the race, Kavanagh anatomized the parish. His sensibility was closer to Carleton’s than to Yeats’s or Synge’s. This was a case of the peasantry not wanting to be sung, but wanting to sing themselves, and finding themselves faced with a version of their own reality that would have to be dismantled. The vehemence of much of Kavanagh’s criticism and the air of exhaustion which finally enters his poetry springs, in large measure, from the sway which the Yeatsian image of the country and country people had gained. It was as if he had been imaginatively checkmated: the roots of his poetic gift were deeply entwined in the earth of rural Irish life with all its peculiar hardness and tenderness, yet he began to feel that to call upon those roots and to conjure with those authentic images was somehow to connive in a spurious myth. Hence the barefaced and abrupt absolutes he comes out with from the late forties onwards:

I would say now that the so-called Irish Literary movement which purported to be so frightfully Irish and racy of the Celtic soil was a thoroughgoing English-bred lie. (Collected Pruse, p.13.)

When I came to Dublin the Irish Literary affair was booming. It was the notion that Dublin was a literary metropolis and Ireland, as invented and patented by Yeats, Lady Gregory and Synge, a spiritual entity. (Collected Pruse, p.14-15.)
The Irish audience that I came into contact with tried to draw out of me everything that was loud, journalistic and untrue. Such as:

"My soul was an old horse
Offered for sale in twenty fairs."

Anthologists everywhere keep asking for this ... What the alleged poetry-lover loved was the Irishness of the thing. Irishness is a [16] form of anti-art. A way of posing as a poet without actually being one. (Collected Pruse, p;16.)

Kavanagh elaborates this last insight cruelly but comically in an essay on Yeats’s protégé, F. R. Higgins, a man from the rich farmlands of County Meath who wrote a kind of crepuscular Leinster pastoral, a mode calculated to exacerbate the later Kavanagh:

He wanted to be what mystically, or poetically, does not exist, an "Irishman". He wanted to be a droll, gallivanting "Irishman". Nearly everything about Higgins would need to be put into inverted commas [.] The word "gallivanting" appears throughout his verse. (November Haggard, 1971, p.19.)

Such Irishness, Kavanagh claimed, was not so much a symptom of achieved identity and cultural integrity as it was a symptom of "provincialism", and as an alternative to such an insincere basis for art, he offered the notion of "parochialism":

Parochialism and provincialism are opposites. The provincial has no mind of his own: he does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis - towards which his eyes are turned has to say ... The parochial mentality, on the other hand, is never in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish. All great civilizations are based on the parish - Greek, Israelite, English. (Collected Pruse, p.282.)

So Kavanagh’s "Epic", the poem which most succinctly defines his theme and his matter, does not deal with the matter of Ireland but the matter of Inniskeen, not with arms and the man in any national sense but with pitchforks and neighbours, with an act of trespass rather than an act of war:

Epic
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul"
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel
"Here is the march along these iron stones" [17]
That was the year of the Munich bother.
Which Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
Collected Poems, 1972, p.136.

  Kavanagh brought us forward from the myths of the revival, certainly, but in order to begin again he had to return us to the matter of Carleton.
  The great and true liberator was, of course, Joyce who, like Tiresias, foresuffered all.

[.]


[ back ]

[ top ]